Pondering the mysteries of a cult phenomenon that began when two young San Franciscans began recording the fights of their incredibly loud, drunken, abusive neighbors, “Shut Up Little Man!” ekes all the interest one might expect and more from its subject. Issues of copyright, voyeurism and exploitation, among other things, arise in Aussie documentarian Matthew Bate’s first feature-length project, which mixes interviews, re-enactments, archival footage and motion graphics. Alternately hilarious and discomfiting, and finally rather poignant, pic stands a decent chance of snagging niche theatrical deals before hitting home formats. The unbelievably foul language, however, will scare off most broadcasters.
Artsy Midwestern college grads Eddie Guerriero (“Eddie Lee Sausage”) and Mitch Deprey (“Mitchell D.”) moved to S.F. in 1987, and considered their dumpy Lower Haight apartment building (dubbed “the Pepto-Bismol Palace” for its sickly pink hue) part of the aspiring-bohemian equation. They did not count, however, on being one paper-thin wall away from the domestic purgatory of Raymond and Peter, two older men who did not work and surely did not belong together, yet filled their days and nights — and their neighbors’ — with surreal, profane battles.
Though the men were very seldom glimpsed, their personalities were nonetheless quite distinct: Peter was a flaming, sniping queen of the old school; grumbling, mumbling he-man Raymond a raging homophobe. Occasionally a third party, gormless Tony, turned up to be tugged like a chew-toy between his hosts. They were, as one observer here puts it, “like ‘The Odd Couple’ meets ‘Waiting for Godot.’?”
At first seeking to compile evidence to file an official complaint after too many sleepless nights, Mitch and Eddie grew obsessed with recording their neighbors, soon inviting friends over for listening parties, and swapping the cassette tapes that would seed a viral phenomenon long before the Internet made such things commonplace.
Eventually fans around the globe were reciting favorite lines — Raymond’s spluttered “If you wanna talk to me, then shut yer fuckin’ mouth!” being the piece de resistance of inebriated absurdism — with adaptations into comicbooks, stage plays, songs and more. By 1995, no fewer than three rival feature films were in development, though only a fourth (2002’s little-seen but flavorsome “Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth!”) actually got made. All this passed without the least knowledge of the original subjects. (At least once the two had noticed a microphone outside their window, but strangely didn’t seem to mind.)
Long gone from the “Palace,” Mitch and Eddie continued selling tapes and spinoff merchandise, but watched with mixed emotion as their little “urban field recordings” took on new lives of their own. Threatened lawsuits and some rifts between creative collaborators ensued. Feeling a bit conscience-stricken at having gotten so far on the purloined semi-private ravings of sad alcoholics, the protags tried to make things right, as seen in the docu’s oddly redemptive climax.
Freewheeling yet astute pic covers a lot of ground, from similar YouTube phenomena to invasion-of-privacy debates, using everything from actors to animation in illustrating various points. It’s cleverly packaged on all levels.